Judy Watson in conversation with Hetti Perkins

HP String is a recurring motif or reference in your works and, as Geraldine Barlow observes, when ‘one fibre joins another; fragile threads are made stronger when entwined. Women are traditionally the string-makers. Fibres are rolled up and down the leg to bind them together, with the small hairs being picked up and becoming a part of the string.’1 It seems that this is also a way of understanding your artistic practice, and how your own personal story becomes part of your family’s history.

JW String is not just vegetable fibre, it could be hair from the body. It can be material fibre that has been worn on the body. It collects all the DNA from the hair of the person who’s making the string — rolling it up and down on their leg and capturing the hairs and particles of skin — and then from whoever wears those hairstring objects. Whether it goes into a museum collection or somewhere else, it’s gathering all that community with it. It’s like the old people are travelling in those objects.

The DNA of those people, their resonance, is still in the object. You can feel it when you look at it or when you touch it. The first thing I thought when I saw some of those objects was, could that have been my grandmother’s, great grandmother’s, great great grandmother’s hair within those objects? And further back, my great great grandfather as well.

HP It’s interesting, as Geraldine also observes, that the structure of the string echoes the double helix of the DNA pattern.2 The string metaphor leads us to talking about the process of creating the exhibition for Ikon and subsequently TarraWarra Museum of Art and the Australian tour.

JW I’m creating a work right now for the Gallery of Modern Art | Queensland Art Gallery Water exhibition which has string in it and whorls of water.

HP I remember being very struck by a work you did where you referred to the whorls made by the hairs on the head of a newborn baby and, in more recent works, how those patterns can refer to melting snow. It’s one of the characteristics of your work, the simultaneous expression of the ‘big picture’ and the ‘small picture’. A deeply personal, observational practice.

During your recent visits to England, Scotland and Ireland, what sort of ‘string’ have you been making? What have you been gathering and binding together?

JW The conceptual idea underlying the trip was looking at ancient sites in the region, specifically stone sites: stone circles or standing stones. I also revisited The British Museum and The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

My idea was to have images of standing stone forms — shadowy or very ghostly presences — and the floating of Aboriginal cultural material across the top. It’s a layering of experiences and a layering of understanding of what is culture.

I took photos and video of the stone sites, but also of people interacting with them as something familiar in their ‘backyard’. You get people picnicking on them, leaning against them, sheep rubbing against them and leaving the dye-print of their wool on the stones. People would come to them, interact with them, photograph themselves, and then the next wave of people would come through. It’s very different to many of our sites in Australia, like Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill Gorge) in north-west Queensland. There are sites there that are really important, that you are not allowed to photograph any more. That’s come about through the community making that decision because it’s part of a living culture. Whereas with the English sites, they’re very much part of the tourist landscape — and very young in comparison to Australian sites.

And then there’s my collective memory in terms of my mum’s Aboriginal side of the family. And dad’s side, the Scottish, English and Irish side, as well. Thinking about that coming down the line of generations and how all of that cultural memory comes into a collective space which is myself, my body as the artist. I’m then transmitting this data in the same way as all the data and DNA that’s been collected by the Aboriginal cultural material. Sometimes those objects have been in overseas museums longer than they were in their own country, even though the cultural memory is much, much older in the place where they were made. It’s really important if they can be repatriated and seen by people from those communities.

I’m interested in all of those stories and the way they rub up against each other, like string. For example, I was looking at some woven objects in Cambridge a few years ago and, when I unpacked them, I couldn’t believe there were thirteen or so hairstring skirts. I thought why are there thirteen? There were small ones, and large ones. How did whoever collected these get them? Did they ask the women and the young girls to suddenly drop them and take them? Were they collected after a massacre? Were they given in exchange for mission dresses? Were they exchanged for money or other goods? To have that number from a community of thirteen young girls and older women, it made me very sad actually.

1. Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow, ‘Judy Watson’, Water, exhibition catalogue, Brisbane: Gallery of Modern Art | Queensland Art Gallery 2019, p. 113.
2. Ibid., p. 113.

HP All objects have a degree of cultural intimacy but certainly those objects are especially personal, intimate objects considering their role in community life.

JW Absolutely, they have been taken from the body. And there’s something those objects are transmitting to you. I was trying to enfold them and understand them and I feel like they were part of that exchange as well, that exchange of information. How do they feel, having been taken from their place of origin and from the people who wore them, into the dark spaces in museums?

HP Your work about the trafficking of objects includes breastplates or gorgets, and even human remains.

JW Gaye Sculthorpe sent me links to all of this information and it’s really interesting.3 There was a person whose name was Agnes Dorothy Kerr (c. 1870–1951) who was the Matron of Burketown Hospital, Queensland. Basically, she was a bone collector. Of course she wasn’t the only one, there were plenty of people doing that type of thing. She was colluding with various curators to get all of this material for the Wellcome Collection in London — a different life from being the Matron of a hospital.

For instance, Kerr donated the skull and breastplate of ‘King Tiger of Lawn Hill Mines’. King Tiger’s skull has gone back to the National Museum of Australia and the Waanyi authorities are going to decide where it should be reburied, but the breastplate is still at the Wellcome Collection.

HP I wonder if she bequeathed her own skeleton to the Collection …

JW It’s bizarre. All this correspondence stopped when the war broke out. It’s very much a case of skulduggery. People say to her that they know that people don’t want to have their bones taken. And yet, she and others talk about doing it by stealth.

With all of this correspondence, it would be great to do an artist’s book in the same way I did a preponderance of aboriginal blood (2005) and under the act (2007).

HP We, as Aboriginal people, talk about the ongoing effects of colonisation and the evidence of that through state sanctioned actions like the atomic testing at Maralinga and the Stolen Generations. Also the actions of people like Kerr speak volumes about what colonialism is about and the relationship between subject and oppressor which enables activities like hers. When you go into those collections you don’t know what you will find.

JW At Cambridge, they’ve changed their practice because they were letting me handle objects with my bare hands. Previously you had to wear gloves and sometimes that is for good reason as there might be arsenic or formaldehyde or whatever they used to preserve objects — you probably don’t want that on your skin — but not when it’s stone tools and things.

It makes sense if its people from the community of origin to not wear gloves because you’re putting your DNA on that object.

Ma ̄ori people talk about the fact that the pounamu (jade) needs that human touch or embrace and crying over to be kept alive. I think it’s the same with other cultural material.

HP You’ve said in drawing the works, you literally draw them to you.

JW In looking at those drawings later, I can remember doing the drawing. I know I remember the object much more because of that transmission of the eye down the line of the arm to the pencil on the paper. So, even if I was to touch that drawing, it would shoot back a strong memory flash of the object and so I really like going back to those early drawings and thinking about them. It’s like a cry from the object to me and back again, we’re talking to each other, it’s a conversation.

HP And how did you feel when you were looking at those different stone formations and other sites like the henges, the barrows, the ley lines in your travels?

JW I was interested in how I would feel in those places. And, the same as you would find in many sites in Australia, every time I think this is a great place to sit and look at the view, it’s really safe — that’s where you often find stone tools and midden sites. Often the sites for the ancient standing stones and stone circles were very similar and very beautiful. I had the chance to sit, do a bit of drawing, photography and filming, and really just be in the place.

It was a really good matrix for my journey across the country to places as far north as the Orkney Islands, the Hebrides, and a few sites in Ireland.

HP It’s interesting to think of England from an Aboriginal perspective, of the coloniser’s country being crisscrossed with significant and enduring signs of spirituality.

JW I’ve always been interested in ancient sites where there’s water, springs, ancient sources. During a residency in Italy, I met some people who were looking at magnetic sites around the world when I was at this site near Castellina in Chianti. We were talking about the fact that later churches were built on pagan sites and about our trade routes or ‘highways’ that went through Aboriginal Australia going from well to well, connecting water sources — they were talking about it in a European context. After they left, I was standing where there was an Etruscan tomb and it had two Tuscan pines planted on it — they were used as markers — and an incredible storm came across but, between the pines, it was really still. It was very potent.

At the Ness of Brodgar on the Orkney Islands, I met archaeologists who were working on a dig and saying how they wanted to get to the really old sites. In Australia and other places too, that’s the history I’m really interested in as well as contemporary history. I really want to know what comes first and then come up through the levels gradually.

HP Your process of research reflects the making of the work itself, applying all the layers and then rubbing it back to see what is revealed. And layering your very delicate mark making. And even the ground underneath the work makes an impression on this flayed skin that is your canvas.

JW I will have ideas set in my head about what I want to do and I’ve got all the collected material but then the work has a conversation with me. I’ll try and push forward and it’ll push back and so it will really be what will transpire once I engage with the work and the work tells me what to do! It’s got to feel right in my gut and that’s why some things take a long time. I did a trip back to our Waanyi country last year that will also translate across into the work I’m making: Boodjamulla, Riversleigh, connections with my grandmother’s story, my mother’s, my great great grandmother’s.

HP How do you feel when you’re on Country?

JW Fantastic, it is such a beautiful experience to be there, but also our country is so incredible. The subterranean blue-green water, the verdant palms, all the wildlife in the area, the bush birds, the animals. This time I was noticing a lot of scar trees and photographing those. It’s dried up a bit as it has everywhere. Century Zinc has taken a lot of the water, and drought and climate change have come to bear in those areas as well. There are so many sites across the Gulf of Carpentaria that used to have beautiful springs running in the 1800s and 80% of them are no longer working due to interference by people and animal stock and other causes.

There was a story about Lilydale Springs where my grandmother — my grandmother Grace Isaacson or Camp as she was known previously — used to go when she was little. She asked her mother, Mabel Daly, ‘how are Lilydale Springs?’ when she saw her again, and her mother Mabel said ‘Oh, the Rainbow [Rainbow Serpent, or Boodjamulla] dried it up’. They found out a person on the property had actually dynamited the springs trying to get more out of them. And that is just such a common story where there’s interference.

It is such a delicate balance of that water bubbling from ancient sources up through the limestone, sandstone, all those layers to reach the top surface. It’s the same water that dinosaurs were drinking from. It’s connected underground to systems a long way away and to have that balance struck down for some futile short term gain, which they are definitely going to lose, is such a common story not just in Australia but across the world. It’s irreversible.

3. Dr Gaye Sculthorpe is Curator & Section Head, Oceania, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas,
The British Museum

I’m making work about water as a weapon. I heard a lecture by Lisa Beaven about how water was redirected to surround towns in Europe to push a whole community into submission.4 That is exactly what’s happening with the Murray-Darling where water has been re-routed and it’s making communities die. The water’s not sustaining country and therefore it’s not sustaining the culture and the people — and that’s deliberate genocide. It’s water as a weapon. During frontier violence, many of our waterholes were deliberately poisoned. Now many of our river systems and bodies of water are poisoned by agricultural, domestic and industrial contaminants leaching into them.

HP Speaking about weapons, what is your interest in the manufacture of firearms in Birmingham?

JW In the work pale slaughter, 2015, I was looking at the use of weapons in massacres and a list of weapons that were imported into Fremantle during the colonial era. I’m interested in which ones might have originated in Birmingham and also things like buttons on the Native Police uniforms, badges, belt buckles. There are so many different overlays of stories between Birmingham and the whole process of colonisation in Australia.

HP How does the history of colonisation relate to your family in particular?

JW Nan said that she started working from the age of five or six, when she was taken to Morestone Station from Thorntonia. Her mother, Mabel Daly, had run away with Nanna from Riversleigh Station. The police were coming and taking children away. Mrs Donaldson, who was the manager’s wife on the property, used to warn the women so they would hide the children. Nanna remembers being hidden on a number of occasions, but she ended up being taken to Morestone Station. Apparently the lady there wanted a little girl to teach how to work and that’s what Nanna did from five or six, until she then went to the next property.

HP As a ward of the state?

JW Yes, and her mother too, Mabel Daly, she worked on a lot of properties and Rosie [the artist’s great great grandmother]. Rosie escaped a massacre at Lawn Hill and that was told to me by Ruby Saltmere and Shirley Macnamara, who are our relatives, at my grandmother’s funeral. I then read about it in Tony Robert’s book Frontier Justice: A History of the Gulf Country to 1900 and it comes up again in Timothy Bottoms’s book Conspiracy of Silence: Queensland’s Frontier Killing-Times. And somehow, a bit like the drawings, hearing about it at my grandmother’s funeral and then reading the story later, suddenly it pierced me. And that’s when I made salt in the wound, 2008, with Yhonnie Scarce; casting people’s ears with beeswax and making a windbreak like the one my great great grandmother hid behind.5 It’s a very fragile thing, it’s hardly a barrier.

Rosie was bayonetted through the upper body. And then she and another girl used reeds to breathe through while they hid underwater with stones on their bellies to escape the troopers. Once again, such a fragile thing. Who would have thought that just a reed would be your passport to survival, something to breathe through to evade the murderous intents of the police and people from the surrounding properties — anyone who considered the blacks a nuisance.

HP Much of our culture and history is passed to us orally or visually, often through art.

JW I’ve always responded to stories, I was studying literature while I was studying visual art. The visualisation of a story has always been very much part of me.

4 Lisa Beaven, ‘Weather, land and landscape: Landscape painting and the Little Ice Age in the seventeenth century’, paper delivered at AFTERSTORM: Gardens, Art and Conflict symposium, University of Melbourne, 25 October 2019.
5. Judy Watson, salt in the wound 2008, ochre, salt, brush, wax, wire, nails, string, dimensions variable. Exhibited in Shards: Judy Watson, Yhonnie Scarce, Nici Cumpston, South Australian School of Art Gallery (SASA),
30 September – 24 October 2008.